7. A philosophical view of climate change (1)

This is the first of three Posts on climate change.[1] The other two will be published over the next few weeks.

The problem

  1. We assume, in line with the view of the overwhelming majority, that the current serious changes in climate are threatening to the human species and are created by it.
  2. Philosophically, we tie the problem to the question of identity. Crucial to this is the modern identity based on the search for freedom and wealth. Hlatky describes the historical roots of this in Post 5, God or Mammon?
  3. Essentially, the fixed identities of the medieval period, based on a hierarchical society predominated over by the Church and other authorities, were replaced by an emphasis on human freedom. While the freedom of the individual from oppression by other individuals is self-evidently unobjectionable and unproblematic, this went hand in hand with the gradual rejection of any belief in a conscious original cause. Humans thus came to regard themselves as free to organise themselves solely as they saw fit and to pursue freely chosen ends, without regard for any divine order or divinely ordained leader. This extended to the use they made of Nature – no longer seen as God’s creation.
  4. Crucial to the practical furtherance of these goals has been the development of modern science (at first not atheistic, but later generally so), from the beginning of the 1600s. This has paved the way through technological advance to the possibility of greater and greater exploitation of Nature.
  5. Along with this, the digital age has served to promote the disconnect of humans from Nature.
  6. Unfettered human activity has culminated in the climate problems we see today.
  7. Because Nature is not seen as given by a God for an understandable purpose (see Post 2), the question as to whether it might be perfect for its purpose (see Post 2; also UR, p.129ff) cannot even arise. Rather, the now generally held view is that Nature is not perfect. That is, Nature is not all good, but both good and bad. It ‘blindly’ offers us, for example, only a one-off life that has no inherent meaning and in which there can be suffering.[2] Our major goal, therefore – the argument runs – must be to explore Nature with a view to gaining control over it; humans can then improve it[3], get rid of the bad, and create a better life for themselves. So Nature is no longer seen as absolute ­– at least, not in any positive sense; and human creativity has come to be seen as primary, and not as relative to Nature’s creativity.[4]
  8. The extent of this human creativity is nowadays regarded as boundless: the human species can be improved, death can be overcome; whatever problems there are will all be solved by technology, its development exponentially speeded up by artificial intelligence.[5]
  9. So the crucial step historically, in our view, has been this switch to an out-and-out identification with human creativity. And this in its turn has been facilitated by the failure of the world monotheisms to come up with a reasonable – that is, Nature-based [UR p.137], reality-based – hypothesis of the original cause. Therefore, equally importantly, they have not come up with a reasonable hypothesis of the original meaning – of our place in creation and our relation to it.
  10. This blog’s major contention is that unless this identification with human creativity is challenged and agreement reached as to our real – in our view, common – identity (see Post 3), based on a Nature-based view of the original cause and meaning, no technical solution to the problems of climate change will ever work in the long run.
  11. We may one day – even one day soon – be forced by catastrophic surface changes in Nature[6] to impose considerable lifestyle changes on ourselves and to draw back from our unfettered creative activity. This will be particularly the case where these surface changes in Nature have a negative impact on our ability to satisfy our existential needs. But the necessary changes in lifestyle will not be welcomed and fully embraced. On the contrary, a struggle for the diminishing resources will ensue, in which those who are able to afford access to them and/or can have control over them – as individuals or countries – will seek to hang on to as much of their current lifestyle as possible, challenged by those less well positioned doing the same.
  12. And, even assuming for a moment that Nature is given enough breathing space to recover itself,[7] we will be back at the business of ‘improving’ Nature in the blink of an eye unless we can agree upon a philosophy that can underpin the required lifestyle change.[8]

    The necessary philosophical re-evaluation

  13. We invite the reader to reflect on the possible contribution of Hlatky’s self-evidenced-based hypothesis of the original cause and meaning – developed in this blog and on the associated website – to the solution of the problem of climate change.
  14. To summarise Hlatky’s hypothesis: God is behind Nature in an ongoing way. Nature is God’s purposeful activity. It serves God’s – the original non-created whole’s – need to be understood by his original non-created parts. If the parts extrapolate from the experience they are able to have as human beings in creation, they can then understand that God must exist and is basically like them: he has the same need – to be understood as like and thereby loved – that they have. At the same time, the need of the parts is also satisfied, in their relationship with one another and with the whole, whom they experience indirectly through the whole’s activity, that is, Nature, creation.
  15. But to have the necessary experience in creation, the parts must have a body to connect to. This body is part of Nature and completely bound to Nature. This bondage to Nature is experienced by us via needs, which act like forces from inside us. These encourage us to do our part in sustaining the body, which otherwise Nature sustains within an overall ecology. We can ignore our needs – by refusing to eat, for example – but not the consequences of doing that, consequences which again Nature will provide.
  16. This situation does not have to be seen by us as problematic, however, since God has provided everything within Nature that is required to satisfy our existential needs. In addition, we are encouraged to play our part by the pleasure we experience in satisfying them.
  17. It is in satisfying such natural needs that we cannot avoid using Nature [UR pp.51-2]; they are the principal reason for our interaction with it. And ‘interact’ is what we should do, rather than interfere [UR p.68]. This means relating to Nature – which requires us to understand its purpose as a whole.[9]

    The solution cannot be solely technological

  18. Without Hlatky’s view (or some other equally Nature-based, reasoned view), the debate about climate change will be conducted solely in technical terms. This is the case now.
  19. Firstly, the single overriding technical question is posed: ‘Is Nature actually being adversely affected by the uses humans are making of it?’ If we assume that answer to be ‘yes’, the next technical question becomes: ‘Which of the uses we are making of Nature are particularly harmful and should be modified, curtailed or halted?
  20. Appended to this is a debate about what technology might be applied or developed in an attempt to produce a technical solution to the problem.
  21. It will be conceded within such a view that every detail in Nature seems to have a function in a system, established solely by evolution, and that, technically speaking, we run risks when we cut across this. But that is not the same as allowing that Nature as a whole has a purpose [UR p.135]: God’s purpose (so that fundamentally it is not mechanics, but God’s need, that drives the whole activity of Nature).
  22. We leave Hlatky to summarise (UR p.42):

    Stefan Hlatky: Science can never answer the philosophical question ‘why?’, and is therefore bound to the idea of time, and to continually examining the past in order to try to foresee the future. I say that I can in principle foresee the future the moment that I understand creation as a purposeful order, an order that is changeable on the surface but not fundamentally.

    Philip Booth: You mean that, because the purpose of creation never changes, the basic order never changes?

    SH: Yes …no matter how much we interfere with creation on the surface, by polluting it, destroying forests and so on. We can confuse the order on the surface, but the order will always eventually reassert itself, from the very moment that we stop confusing it with our own creativity that is blind to Nature’s creativity.

    PB: But if we don’t think creation has an unchanging purpose…?

    SH: Then two different sets of principles rule the future. The first set of principles is that which actually rules the order of Nature. This set is determined by God’s need to be understood and therefore by his purpose in creation. The second set of principles derives from the meanings created by human beings, who have to organise themselves in some way – since life is always interaction, which includes interaction with other human beings.

    PB: And as people nowadays are generally educated by modern science without any agreement about the order of Nature, they can’t see the virtue of being ruled by the order of Nature?

    SH: That’s right. And in that case they can’t avoid having to agree about and be ruled by the different meanings or purposes human beings create, even though that process invariably brings endless conflict – which is why it was always said that wars are inevitable. And nowadays such competition about meanings – which is inevitable when there is no agreement about Nature’s meaning – has even been made into a virtue by the ideology of the market economy (see Post 5).

    Conclusion

  23. There is widespread agreement nowadays about the science of climate change – despite dissent in some important quarters. There is also widespread agreement about the technical steps that would be needed to counteract the problem – despite disagreement about the prioritising of these. The real problem is a lack of motivation, both individually and collectively, to carry out those steps. This is because we are not willing to change the lifestyle based on this identification with human creativity and based on the consequent meanings created by human beings (including, obviously, the pursuit of wealth). Or – and this has the same root – we are passive, because, in a blind faith in future human technology, we believe that human creativity will solve the problem in time.
  24. Greta Thunberg[10] and the children who have started protesting recently around the world are right to chide the adults and to seek to goad them into some action. But this action will be ultimately fruitless while it is based on this identification with human creativity. And the danger is that the children themselves will become adults who are equally wedded to it.[11]
  25. Although it would be a strange stance to expect children to take, they also need, therefore, to goad the adults into reaching some philosophical clarity and agreement (such as, for example, the possibility Hlatky offers) – without which action will be ineffective other than temporarily.
  26. None of this means that we should sit idly by until such philosophical agreement is forthcoming. But it does require the insight, which is nowadays suppressed, that such a discussion and agreement are ultimately going to be necessary – and that philosophical agreement is possible, as long as we are determined to remain reality-based in our thinking.[12]

Footnotes:
1. Reminder: this Post assumes familiarity with our About page, our Summary of Hlatky’s View page and the first four Posts
2. For the question of suffering, see UR, pp.108-9.
3. See Post 8, which starts its argument from this point.
4. For more on the historical development of this idea, see UR pp.121-3.
5. For a typical example of the faith in technology and AI, consider the views of Stephen Hawking. He can imagine, for example, that AI could develop a will of its own that might be in conflict with the will of humans; or, he writes: ‘It might be possible to use genetic engineering to make DNA-based life survive for at least 100,000 years’ (extracted from his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions).
Or take what Yuval Harari says in his bestseller Sapiens: A brief history of humankind: ‘The project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.’ (p.298)

6. … only ‘surface’, because Nature does not change fundamentally. [UR p.100]
7. This leaves aside the question of whether it is too late for humans to save their species – see e.g. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. But note that it will never be ‘too late’ for Nature, since, as Hlatky points out, we can never harm Nature. Nor can we rescue it.
8. …much as the pursuit of wealth has been largely unaffected by the financial collapse of 2008.
9. For the contrast between ‘relating to’ and ‘controlling’, see UR pp.52-3  or UR p.159.
10. Or see her speech at the United Nations.
11. For the centrality of the contrast between human creativity and God’s creativity, see the conclusion of the dialogues between the two authors of Understanding Reality [UR pp.164-5].
12. For further reading, see UR pp.57-8 and UR p.70. For more on the subject of freedom, view this excerpt from Hlatky’s videoed talk, God and Science.

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